Fiction and poetry by Jeffery Renard Allen pushes and provokes. His short stories, poems and award-winning first novel, Rails Under My Back, are serious, well-crafted writing. With his precise language and a command of style, Allen challenges his readers by moving in unanticipated directions. His willingness to experiment in prose and verse raises important questions about the structure and function of literature in the 21st century. A Chicago native, Allen works with the blues, but writes within a number of traditions, culturally and aesthetically. Fully aware of improvisation and its power, he is not shy about exploring new directions. An Associate Professor at Queens College and member of the graduate faculty at the New School, Jeffery Allen found time to talk about his work while serving as a keynote speaker at the 2003 Inaugural Meeting of the John Edgar Wideman Society in Philadelphia and again in 2005 at Penn State University's Celebrating the African American Novel conference.
Michael Antonucci: Maybe we could start by talking about Rails Under My Back and what you were thinking about when you began that project, more than ten years ago now.
Jeffery Allen: I started Rails Under My Back in the early 1990s. The creation of the Jesus character was, of course, central to the novel. One of the things that inspired me to do this work was that from the late 80s on I was in Chicago and I saw so many young black men killing each other. During that time, a neighborhood I was very familiar with, Englewood, had the one of the highest murder rates in the country. I think it averaged seventy-five murders per year. My cousins had lived in the neighborhood and while I was growing up, I used to spend every weekend there. I was curious about this phenomenon, which was not unique. Violence of this sort was happening across the country, but there was no fiction by young African American writers addressing it. From what I could see, these circumstances were only being looked at in the films that were coming out in the early 90s, which were for the most part pretty horrible.
There were actually some white writers who were addressing the situation, in some respects. For example, Richard Price wrote Clockers. African American writers from an earlier generation were also examining it. John Edgar Wideman did this in Philadelphia Fire and to some extent in The Cattle Killing. But otherwise, among younger black writers, Jess Mowry was the only writer who was really exploring the violence in northern black cities and urban landscaping and the horrible realities that were there in the 1980s and 90s.
MA: As an attempt to make sense of these circumstances, American history and its engagement with family, I want to describe Rails as “epic.”
JA: You could, but it's somewhat problematic because epic is used as a marketing term which means “big book.” Of course the term obviously has some literary antecedents which are very specific. Rails is a “big book” but it's also an apocalyptic novel for the end of the 20th century, which in many ways came to end when Reagan came into office. Think about it: two terms of Reagan, another one for H.W. Bush and the AIDS epidemic climaxing in the 90s. What more could happen? These weren't pretty circumstances and in many ways we are right there again. How can a writer turn a blind eye to that? I wanted to write about subjects that people did not want to talk about. I do think that it's a writer's job to put the dirty stuff in peoples' faces to make sure they see it.
That was back in 1990, but even today in 2005 there is hardly any serious fiction by young African American writers which deals with the cities. Most of the fiction is historical, which is O.K.. I am doing that work myself right now. But for the most part the urban landscape is being left to these commercial writers and the so-called hip-hop gangsta novel genre with people like Kenji Jasper and even Sista Soulja. So it's still a kind of gap in literature that exists and something that interests me.
MA: Maybe I can push this idea just a little further by saying Rails succeeds in the way it applies folklore and material drawn from everyday life to its literary action. In Rails the folklore is dynamic; you're not doing taxidermy.
JA: If epic is supposed to mean something that springs from the oral tradition that eventually takes a literary form, then that's one thing I learned from Invisible Man. I want to make that clear right off. In the Homer Barbee scene, Ellison makes it clear that the epic tradition of African American culture or people is our folk cultures. So any African American epic has to come from that source.
MA: Your short fiction features a variety of characters and voices—it also moves into a range of environments and geographic areas: southern rural settings, the urban north, middle class town homes, inner city town homes. Can you account for this?
JA: When I started writing short fiction seriously I almost had a blueprint in mind. A lot of the stories I wrote then, and even the ones I write now, were about a character named Hatch. Initially, I put all the Hatch stories in one collection and maybe they will appear like that someday. My original idea was that Hatch would be a different character in each story, but he would always have the same name. For instance, in one story he would be a seven-year-old kid who lives in Beverly Hills and in another story he would be a fifty-year old man who lived in poverty all his life. I thought this was an interesting way of exploring questions of African-American identity and its range of possibilities. A way of examining how, too often, people see our experiences as monolithic.
I have always loved the story about Muhammad Ali's fight with Cleveland Williams in the mid-60s. Ali was the champion, but Williams refused to call him Muhammad Ali. The fight was brutal; every time Ali hit Williams, he would ask him, “What's my name?” The Hatch stories are built on the same sort of idea. Naming is important in African American culture and history. Hatch provides a way of taking one name and applying it to characters who are in some ways very different people, but in other ways the same because of they are an extension of a denied history.
MA: Hatch is also the name of Jesus' cousin in Rails.
JA: Yes, it is.
MA: I have heard you talk about these issues—the compartmentalization and expectations—on a number of occasions, especially in relation to notions of “tradition.”
JA: I guess I have been complaining about this for a while now. When we talk as critics about African American literature—and I mean both black and white critics—too often we talk about THE black writer in removed terms that fail to place the writer's work in perspective. For example, when European scholars discuss Toni Morrison or John Edgar Wideman, they're interested in these writers because they are American writers, not just African American writers. Morrison and Wideman are recognized as being part of American literary tradition and in terms of a larger international literary scene. But it seems to me that when American scholars write about work by black writers, too much emphasis is placed on establishing how black writers influence one another. There's not enough attention given to reading black writers across literary traditions.
What I am saying is that terms like “African American writer” or “African American literature” are very useful, but in different ways. It is important to have courses and forums where people are introduced to work by black writers. It's important to have scholarship about black writers and it is even important to have a market for black writing. But I think that this can also produce a literary ghetto where black writers are only understood as responding only to other black writing or writing for black readers or producing work that is only relevant to a black experience. The underlying assumption here is that when a white critic reads a black writer's work, this critic doesn't see his own experience. Instead, the critic looks for a black experience that he regards as something wholly other than his own.
MA: Are you talking about labels and the way they get handed out?
JA: I guess this is what I would like to see: at the conferences I attend and in the papers I hear, I get the sense that there might be a more balanced way of approaching black literature. If we want to talk about Leon Forrest and consider how the aesthetic frameworks he worked in have connections to African American culture, that's fine. But why not look at Leon Forrest as a post-modernist or metafictionalist or whatever the case may be? How does his work respond when read in these traditions? What happens when we place his work along side Calvino or Borges? I think this type of double process has to happen. Too often critics are willing to say, “Leon Forrest was a black post-modernist and so is John Wideman and so is Toni Morrison; therefore they are all step children of Ishmeal Reed.” This simplistic sense of influence is what bothers me.
I might be overstating my case, but Michael Awkward uses the term “strong writer.” A strong writer is someone who writes in such a convincing fashion that other writers begin to imitate him. You never hear about a black strong writer influencing writers that are not black. Critics seem to assume that John Wideman is only influencing black writers or that Toni Morrison only influences black women writers. I would say that the impact of these writers is much larger than they would imagine.
MA: And what's being lost here or who's getting squeezed?
JA: It's hard to answer a question like that without seeming petty, but it seems that one of the problems is rooted in how the market works. The publishing world usually has room for just one black writer at a time. Even if you have to have a literary phenomenon, it's still just one at a time. For instance, I think that Zadie Smith's White Teeth was published the year Rails came out. She was that year's literary sensation. Another year it was Colson Whitehead.
This is not to say, I didn't get any notoriety. It's just a way of framing my observation that one year the buzz is “Let's talk about Zadie.” The next year it's, “Let's talk about Colson. He's the new important thing.” I'd say this tends to be the case for black writers. But, in a given year, publishers seem willing to give more space to emerging white writers. A Jonathan Safer and an Alice Seybold are able to come out the same year, for example. I see this as a problem that goes back to pitting black writers against each other.
What I am saying is that people who are interested in good literature, and people who are interested in African American literature in particular, need to open up the literary community and to think about this literature in different ways. They need to start talking about black writers differently. Problems arise from the misconception that we can have one Toni Morrison, and no else gets to that level. But this works in other ways too. We can have Maya Angelou, because she is our celebrity writer, Terry McMillan is our pop writer and so on. Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done.
MA: Getting past labels is only one part then. There's also an issue of understanding the work itself.
JA: Sure. I see scholars having trouble understanding what young African American writers are doing because so many of us are not confined to the things they want us to be maybe. For instance, a novel like John Henry Days goes all over the place: John Henry is its central figure and he holds it all together, but nevertheless, you have all these things happening with white important characters and such. Or Danzy Seana's Caucasia is about passing, but it also takes passing in a whole different direction and asks, “What do you do with that?” There are other examples, too.
If you're asking for an explanation, what seems to have happened for these and other writers is that popular culture has replaced folk traditions. So what does that mean now if you have African American novelists who are being influenced as much by television and other forms of popular cultures as they were by jazz? Besides, who knows, some of these writers might not even be interested in jazz or blues and these kinds of forms. In some ways, this goes back to what Trey Ellis was saying when he began to use in term New Black Aesthetic in 1989 and he talked about the idea of “the cultural mulatto.” I would respond by saying that African Americans have always been cultural mulattos, but when you have a new generation of black writers who don't see race in the same way, the racial landscape is transformed. The other thing here is that, frankly, people are tired of writing about how badly white folks are treating us. Where can you go from there? I mean, hasn't that all been said?
MA: Talking about the need to look beyond the usual suspects and recognizing black writers as having ancestries that go beyond the boundaries of African American literature, your current projects include two novels, Song of the Shank and Hour of the Seeds. You've suggested that W.G. Sebold is important to your new work. Could you say more about this?
JA: In one essay, Sebold discusses his move into writing fiction. He talks about how he was a scholar with a number of intellectual interests and a desire to do something creative with them. At some point he visited a painter and saw a canvas depicting a spider sitting on top of a man's brain. This painting gave him an image to fit his understanding of how imagination worked. So he began to write in ways that moved like a spider on the brain. These novels seemed to be about nothing in particular; subjects would change and disparate sources would be brought in; various genres would be included. The spider gave his rambling approach a concrete form.
For me his experimentation frames an important set of questions any writer should ask: What are the boundaries of a literary endeavor? What is a novel? What are the aesthetic limits of the form? What can be used? What can't be used? Can it be part biography? Can it be history? My experience as novelist is that once I start working on a project, my imagination is open to the world. Anything and everything is going to get inside, even if it gets written out after an initial draft. You don't know where material is going to end up. That's Sebold's spider at work. And, to me, this runs counter to the idea that black writers are only reading and responding to other black writers. Every writer who sets out to write a book needs to answer the primary question: “What form should this book take?” Pondering this question should lead the writer to consider who else has tried to do this and how they helped to shape this material. Sebold is certainly doing this for me.
Blind Tom is the central figure in Song of the Shank—once I discovered him, I started to think about this guy and how I was going to write out his life. I realized that it was going to involve lots of sources and information. I knew this sort of novel would involve multiple voices and a number of stylistic approaches To carry this out, I've had to looked closely at Sebold, who I have been reading and teaching for the past few years. He has shown me how to form connections between dissimilar material. For example, Blind Tom died in 1908 and Art Tatum was born in 1909. Conventional thinking might say that there is no connection there but I think if you understand some of the things that Sebold is doing you can make the leap between Blind Tom and Art Tatum. At the same time, I am also interested in how David Bradley treats history in The Chaneysville Incident. I am interested in Colson Whitehead's use of different voices in John Henry Days.
MA: Bringing up David Bradley, you've suggested elsewhere that Rails would have been a different novel if you had been familiar with his work.
JA: In all honesty I had not read The Chaneysville Incident before I wrote Rails. It amazed me because I thought no one could write about uncovering history in an interesting way. I thought that it had been done already; I thought that this was well-covered territory. And what's more is that it's a moving story. I know this is a cliché, but I could not put it down and at times found myself crying. I was amazed by the way that Bradley was able to uncover his historical subject in the novel, even though this history is fictional. This is interesting to me, as I have been developing Song of the Shank because Blind Tom is a historical character that has been erased from the historical record. He kept no diaries. His voice does not exist on a recording. Most of his compositions are lost forever. Accounts about him are couched in the stereotypes and racist thoughts of that era. When I ask myself, “how do I go about uncovering this guy?” I am learning from Bradley.
MA: It seems like this new novel is a research intensive. How much research did you have to do for Rails? Can you make a comparison?
JA: Not much. Really, the historical material in Rails grew out of family stories and I just improvised on top of things I'd heard growing up. I did do a little research on slavery for those parts of the novel, but I am always reading about that so it didn't take me very far out of my way. Basically, I knew the story that I wanted to tell. So the real challenge with Rails was in giving it some kind of shape and form.
MA: Getting back to Sebold, one critic suggests that “erasure” is important to Sebold's overall project, especially in Rings of Saturn. Is this something you are working through with in Song of the Shank?
JA: I would say yes because one of the things that Sebold does well is find a novelistic form for preserving those things that we want to forget or that history wants to forget or these things that we don't want to see. That is underscored by his use of photographs and illustrations. One of my major goals in the new project is to retrieve Tom from this erased past. In this respect the book has a political agenda. It is an attempt to give voice to a man who never had an opportunity to speak for himself. Obviously, I don't know what he would have said, but I really want to represent his life in a dignified way which suggests his historical and cultural importance as an American of the nineteenth century, who was one of the major cultural figures of his day. Ultimately, I would like the novel to grant Tom some lasting importance as a musician, which is something he has not been credited with.
In this respect I share Sebold's interest in erasure and uncovering aspects of the past. It is curious that Sebold manages to finds these curious events and peculiar people from the past. We read it and say this has to be invented, total fiction, but it's not. In this sense, there's a connection. One of the reasons that peculiar events get erased is because they do not fit into the neat image we have of the past. This is certainly the case with Blind Tom. He is an uncomfortable subject for both white America and black America—at that time and in the present.
MA: Besides writing fiction and teaching, you are also write poetry. Your second volume of verse, Stellar Places, is scheduled for publication in 2005. Could you talk about the way you conduct research for a piece of fiction and compare it with the research you might do when writing poetry?
JA: That's a good question. Maybe the process isn't all that different, but let's just say I set out to write a poem about Art Tatum. I would sit down and listen to his music and then read biographies, culling facts and information that somehow speak to the spirit of the music. You see, the research I do for a poem is really always about music, because for me poetry is basically music. I am not so much interested in what the poem means; I am more concerned with what it sounds like and how the images can move you along. Doing research for this poem, I would look for material that would allow me to come up with images that represent the spirit of Art Tatum and aspects of his life without really having to incorporate biographic information.
For example, I have a poem “Hush Arbor.” It's dedicated to Mahalia Jackson. To write that poem, I read biographies and material about gospel music. I read about Thomas Dorsey and obviously listened to Mahalia Jackson's music. The other part of this process, to take this in a different direction, is that I'm a big fan of T.S. Eliot's poetry. I often re-read his work when I am writing poems. So I opened up one of his poems and asked, “What can I get from Eliot that might be relevant to Mahalia Jackson? We don't usually think of these two people in the same context. There is actually an allusion to an Eliot poem in “Hush Arbor.”
For this reason, I see poetry as a kind of improvisation. If it's a poem about a mythological story or a real person, the life or the story is a foundation, a score for poetic improvisation. My only hope is that the improvisation captures the spirit of the subject. I'm not trying to make it factually exact, just as long as it captures the spirit of the subject.
MA: Would it be fair to say that your poetic research is ongoing, whereas the research you're doing for a character like Blind Tom has defined limits?
JA: I rarely write a poem in one sitting. What will happen is I'll read for a number of days and write down ideas and write down some lines and things and then try to shape it. Then I'll just work from that until I get a proper draft out. I write poems in bits and pieces, fragments really. So I don't feel obligated to write one poem everyday until it's done. Instead, I work on lots of poems at different times. I keep them in a notebook until I can connect dots and it starts to look like poetry. But with fiction, when I'm writing a short story, I usually take a long time to establish what the actual plot is and how it adheres to the structure. Often, when I think that I've finished writing the story, I'll go back and do a post outline and look to see if I've actually accomplished what I set out to do.
So I think the difference between my poetry and my fiction is that I spend a lot of time beforehand actually thinking about the narrative and what it is about and what it should do. I don't begin to write a work of fiction until I actually know the story. When I'm writing poetry, I do it continually until I think I have the poem there over a number of days.
MA: To close on a topical note, we've heard a good deal of discussion at this weekend's conference, “Celebrating the African American Novel,” about “fear” in the African American novel. Would you care to weigh in on this topic?
JA: I would argue that ideally all the best fiction is autobiographical because it addresses that the writer's greatest fears are all on a personal level. For example, in Edward Jones' The Known World, at the moment this guy is free with his free papers, these paddy rollers come and take his papers and keep them. It's like, “Damn!” you know? Wouldn't that have been every freed slave's worst fear? This seems to be something that speaks to Jones on a very personal level. So ultimately, I think the best work we do as writers come from these big, deep psychic fears. It's the fear that puts you in touch with those instinctive levels where creativity has to come from.